Romney Plays It Safe In Ohio On Public Union Ballot Issue, But Is It Too Safe?

Mitt Romney played it safe on a controversial issue again.

Mitt Romney is drawing some fire from the right after declining to take sides in the ongoing Ohio battle over public union employee bargaining rights:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stepped into the middle of the charged battle over organized labor in Ohio on Tuesday, but he avoided weighing in on the contentious legislation that would dramatically limit the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions.

The former Massachusetts governor visited an Ohio Republican Party phone bank in the suburbs of Cincinnati, where GOP volunteers were contacting voters about two hot-button measures that will be on the Nov. 8 ballot.

One of them, Issue 2, would ratify Senate Bill 5 – the controversial legislation backed by Republican Gov. John Kasich that curbs collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Another measure, Issue 3, would amend the state constitution to forbid the state and federal government from imposing a mandate to buy health insurance.

Romney expressed generic support for Kasich’s efforts to curtail union rights, but he would not say whether he supports or opposes the specific measures.

“I am not speaking about the particular ballot issues,” Romney said, only after repeated questions from reporters. “Those are up to the people of Ohio. But I certainly support the efforts of the governor to reign in the scale of government. I am not terribly familiar with the two ballot initiatives. But I am certainly supportive of the Republican Party’s efforts here.”

Not surprisingly, Romney almost immediately came under fire from the right for not publicly backing Issues 2 and 3. Within hours, Rick Perry had come out in favor of the ballot measures and made a not-so-subtle jab at Perry:

Texas Gov. Rick Perry took sides Tuesday in the ongoing battle over organized labor in Ohio, coming down forcefully on the side of Republicans who want to drastically limit the collective bargaining ability of public sector unions.

The Republican presidential contender made a point of weighing in on the issue after his rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, visited Ohio and left questions about his position on an upcoming ballot measure that would overturn the anti-union legislation.

“As a true conservative, I stand with Gov. Kasich in promoting S.B.5 for fiscal responsibility and job creation in Ohio,” Perry said in a statement to CNN. “Gov. Kasich and the Republican leadership of Ohio are to be commended for their efforts.”

Added Perry, “My record as a pro-jobs governor is clear and you don’t have to wonder where I stand.”

Jon Huntsman took to his Twitter account to say “Unlike @MittRomney, I stand with John Kasich in opposing the individual mandate and supporting public sector union reform. “  The Club for Growth and Freedomworks both blasted Romney for refusing to take a stand. The Washington Examiner’s Conn Carroll was more unforgiving:

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Columbus Dispatch, the Cleveland Plain DealerTim Pawlenty, and multiple mayors have all backed Kasich’s law. The Plain Dealer wrote:

Ohio [can’t] pass up this opportunity to break with an unsustainable status quo. Yes, change is scary. But look around: Not changing is even scarier. When they mark their ballots, Ohioans cannot worry about what is best for any political party or interest group — on either side of this debate. They need to consider what’s best for the future of their children, their communities, their state.

If Romney can’t endorse this common sense reform at the state level, why should conservatives believe he will fight against government unions at the federal level.

As was, not surprisingly, Erick Erickson:

Playing it too safe is finally biting Romney in the rear end. He’s refused to call social security a ponzi scheme. He’s refused to offer bold economic reform plans. He’s refused to address significant changes in entitlement reforms. His whole campaign has centered around tapioca.

The political calculus behind Romney’s seeming reluctance to explicitly endorse SB5 isn’t all that hard to understand, as Walter Russell Mead notes:

Polarizing politics and demonizing state and local government workers is not a good idea.  It is unfair for one thing; it is bad politics for another.  Toxic blue model legacy costs are the problem: rigidly bureaucratic government structures, unrealistic costs, years of underfunded pension plans, regulations that choke growth and initiative, outdated progressive ideas about how change works — these are the roots of our problems, not the middle school teacher down the street or the retired post office worker living modestly on a pension that may be underfunded but is hardly a bonanza.

The fifty year old teacher, fireman or police officer may have been naive to believe his or her union leaders, the politicians and the journalists who all said there was nothing to worry about — but most of those workers cannot be called “greedy” or “selfish”.  They are victims of a complex, multi-player Ponzi scheme and have been lied to by a lot of people for a long time.  They also face some serious financial costs.  Not only are their pensions likely to be less generous and solid than they were led to expect; they may well face layoffs and wage freezes as states struggle to cope with legacy costs.

The  newest Quinnipac poll of Ohio has SB 5 losing by a 52% to 32% margin, and losing every single demographic group except Republicans. Romney’s calculation here is obviously that he doesn’t want to end up on the wrong side of an issue that the vast majority of Ohioans are opposed to. Additionally, Ohio has an open primary so independents, who oppose SB 5 by a 56% to 32% margin, will be able to vote. Much like Hillary Clinton was able to win Ohio by appealing to moderate and independent voters in 2008, Romney obviously believes he has a chance to do the same. So, why take the political risk of explicitly getting behind an unpopular law?

The problem for Romney, of course, is that things like this just reinforce the doubts that conservatives have about Romney, and it provides an opening for candidates like Rick Perry to once again differentiate themselves from Romney. More importantly, it also helps to reinforce the image of Romney as a flip-flopper since he had appeared to support Governor Kaisch’s efforts back in June:

“My friends in Ohio are fighting to defend crucial reforms that the state has put in place to limit the power of union bosses and keep taxes low,” Romney wrote on his Facebook page in June. “I stand with John R. Kasich and Ohio’s leaders as they take on this important fight to get control of government spending. Please visit www.BetterOhio.org for more information.”

The website is devoted to advocating for “Issue 2,” the ballot measure which would ratifiy the collective bargaining legislation passed earlier this year. If the referendum fails, the law would be overturned.

In reality, I don’t think that what Romney said yesterday is all that different from what he said in June, or that he really distanced himself from SB 5 as much as people seem to think. Nonetheless, he did reinforce the perception that many on the right that he’s a squish who will say what he needs to in order to get elected. That may be all he needs to do in the end, but incidents like this are going to make the inevitable rapprochement between Romney and the Republican base all the more difficult.

Update: This morning in Virginia, Romney explicitly endorsed Ohio Senate Bill 5 and the Ohio GOP’s efforts to ratify it via referendum.

 

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Labor Unions, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Romney made it clear once again that his only ideology is poll watching.

  2. sam says:

    Quelle surprise — Mittens pussies out.

    And this is just stone stupid:

    Another measure, Issue 3, would amend the state constitution to forbid the state and federal government from imposing a mandate to buy health insurance.

    And this is very interesting:

    The newest Quinnipac poll of Ohio has SB 5 losing by a 52% to 32% margin, and losing every single demographic group except Republicans.

    I understand that about 70% of the police officer and fire fighters in Ohio have reliably voted Republican in the past. But that was in the past….

  3. Alex Knapp says:

    See, this is what happens when you adopt a broad, anti-intellectual ideology. Someone possessed of a knowledge of basic mathematics might start noticing that it takes 50+% of the population to win on an electoral issue.

    But a movement that embraces creationism, denies global warming, and is deeply suspicious of science in general? Yup, you can convince them that having only 32% support of an issue means it’s a winner….

  4. ponce says:

    Romney made it clear once again that his only ideology is poll watching.

    Isn’t that more like a hobby for someone as rich as Romney?

    Or a fetish?

  5. ponce says:

    Flip

    A day after he refused to endorse an Ohio ballot measure that limits public employee union rights, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said Wednesday that he is “110 percent” behind the effort.

    http://www.thesunnews.com/2011/10/26/2465482/romney-reverses-himself-supports.html

    Flop

  6. @Alex Knapp:

    I don’t see what’s anti-intellectual about a policy choice that says that public employee unions shouldn’t have the same rights and private employee unions. That’s a position that Franklin Roosevelt held in the 1930s

  7. Hey Norm says:

    So now, after getting all flippity-floppity, Romney joins the rest of the party and gets 110% behind this attack on the middle class.
    So let’s review the past week:
    *The Senate Republicans voted en masse to not help fund jobs for hundreds of thousands of teachers, and many first responders.
    *House Republicans voted to repeal a 3% tax cut that 229 House Republicans, including Boehner and Cantor originally voted to implement as a way to ensure that tax-cheat contractors pay their fair share.
    *Perry proposed a massive tax cut for the rich, a tax increase for the middle class, and an explosion of the deficit.
    *Romney signs onto Ohio SB5…which is, as I said…just another attack on the middle class in the 30 year war on the middle class.
    *And…DRUM ROLL PLEASE…The CBO came out with a report on inequality that shows the after-tax income of top earners grew at 15 times the rate of lower incomes between Reagan, who started the war on the middle class, and 2007.
    http://www.cbo.gov/doc.cfm?index=12485
    The Middle Class is getting fisted by the invisible hand…and the Republicans are doing everything in their power to help.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    Perhaps Romney can drop by Illinois and support the Democratic House Majority leader’s bill to dramatically limit the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions?

  9. jan says:

    @ponce:

    Here is another article clarifying a bit more the circumstances surrounding Romney’s initial statement to not get involved in the Ohio’s collective bargaining issues.

    In this hyper partisan environment, though, it really doesn’t matter much what remarks a R candidate makes, as there will always be someone out there ready with their slings and arrows to deride how the answer was put forth. It’s simply a lose/lose atmosphere at the moment.

  10. ponce says:

    In this hyper partisan environment, though, it really doesn’t matter much what remarks a R candidate makes…

    Jan,

    Are you pretending there aren’t hordes of wingnut pundits standing by ready to twist every.single.thing Obama does or says?

  11. Hey Norm says:

    “…In this hyper partisan environment…”

    So if Grover Norquist and The Club for Growth, and Erik Erickson, and Rick Perry are being hyper-partisan…where does that place Romney in the political spectrum? Are you saying he is not a Republican?

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I don’t see what’s anti-intellectual about a policy choice that says that public employee unions shouldn’t have the same rights and private employee unions. That’s a position that Franklin Roosevelt held in the 1930s

    Doug, you fail to notice…. These are the same people. And for Christs sake, these people think.

  13. Alex Knapp says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I didn’t say that the policy was anti-intellectual. I said thinking it was a WINNING ISSUE, when only 32% of the pop supports it, is anti-intellectual.